8 Feb 2016
A Midget in Paris
When I joined the then weeks old British Leyland in the market planning dept in August 1968 the company was making over a quarter of a million sports cars-MG,Triumph.Austin-Healey and Jaguar-a year. An astonishing figure.The majority were going to the US -particularly the west coast. Within ten years this vast market had almost gone.
At my job interview in January 1968 I asked,David Christie,the market planning manager, what the company thought of the very advanced Honda S800 sports car. It was a prescient question.
At the time Honda had a very small presence in the UK market although they had already done very well with motorcycles and I was an early adopter of Honda having owned a Honda bike since 1964. So I was aware of how good and how reliable their products were. Christie replied that the company regarded them as toys and did not see them as competitors at all. Well how wrong he was although it was not Honda which did the damage it was Datsun (Nissan) and later Mazda and of course the US EPA with the emissions rules. The Japanese cars were better engineered,better built and just better all round.
BLMC did nothing to protect their sports car market. There was a paucity of new products - just facelifts-and in fact the cars got worse. The emissions compliant engines were dogs.The one new product, the Triumph TR7, came in 1974 -by then the Japanese had already eaten British Leyland's lunch and were getting ready to eat its breakfast and dinner too. And the TR7 was a dog. The build quality was woeful and due to faulty tooling the wheelbase of the car was marginally shorter on one side than the other. Yes, really. At launch there was only the ugly coupe and the standard 4 cylinder engine was gutless. Later pretty convertible and V8 versions were introduced but as always they were too late.The dog had a bad name.The horse had bolted.It was all over red Rover.
My first ever company car in 1972 was an MGB GT -bright orange with Rostyle wheels and overdrive.It was almost the last of the good MGBs. After that model the MGB acquired hideous rubber 5 mph impact bumpers and it was raised to meet the impact bumper height rules.It looked awful-like a geriatric ballet dancer on tip toes- and the performance was even worse with a single carb replacing the twin SUs as they tried to meet the emissions legislation.The US compliant MGB was so bad that it would not do 100 mph even downhill and the driveability was hideous.
Fortunately my MGB looked great and would do a genuine 100 mph on the level-even if the speedo told me it was doing 115 mph-the MGB's most effective performance enhancing equipment was its Smiths speedo. At that time I was commuting to the BL factory at Cowley south of Oxford from Caversham north of Reading. I can still remember my daily commute on wonderful open,traffic free country roads across the Chilterns hills in the early morning and late afternoon and really giving the car some stick.There were no speed cameras littering the roadside in those days. As it was England it was often wet and I really polished my wet road driving skills in that MGB. I had my first experience of black ice in that car on one morning commute. Fortunately I slid into a soft grassy roadside bank and no damage was done.I drove very slowly for a few miles until I was over the icy Chilterns after that heart stopper.
Amazing to relate I retained the MG as my company car after our first child,Lisa,was born. I bought my wife and newborn back from the hospital in the MGB. We carried the baby and baby gear around in the MG for about 6 months until it was changed for a much less interesting saloon. Today's babies seem to require about 5 times as much "gear" as 1970's babies and most of today's parents would consider an MGB totally unsuited as a baby carriage. Indeed from my personal observation many parents regard an Audi Q7 as the minimum sized vehicle capable of carrying a baby and its life support equipment.